In its last two sessions, Congress has been unable to come up with a replacement for the federal government's Section 8 subsidized housing production program. But some creative developers still are finding ways to build rental properties profitably, according to the experts at a recent seminar on building rental housing "without subsidies."
The New York conference was sponsored by the National Leased Housing Association, a Washington-based organization of developers, lenders, attorneys, architects, and state and local officials who push for government support for rental housing.
In most cases, however, building "without subsidies" isn't really that. Instead, it means replacing the earlier "deep" subsidies of the Section 8 program with other forms of government assistance. "That's the name of the game: financing without Section 8," explained conference speaker Francis X. Fallon of Dain Bosworth Inc. of Minneapolis. "It's not financing without any subsidies."
The government aid most frequently comes in the form of lower interest financing provided through tax-exempt bonds sold by state and local agencies. Such mortgages are usually several percentage points below conventional loans, producing a major cost savings in monthly debt service.
The government's Section 8 program provided payments for up to 20 years to subsidize a property's initial rents as well as increases in operating expenses. Residents had to pay a maximum of 30 percent of their gross income for their housing costs, and the government made up the difference between that amount and the full charges on the units.
The tax-exempt form of financing was approved by Congress in the Mortgage Subsidy Bond Tax Act of 1980. Last year's tax bill, the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982, added a requirement that at least 20 percent of a project's units be set aside for "low- and moderate-income" persons.
To meet this test, families and individuals can earn no more than 80 percent of the average area median. In 1981, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that the Washington area median for a family of four was approximately $32,000.
In order to meet this 20 percent standard and to qualify a project for lower-interest, tax-exempt financing, developers are faced with several choices. In some projects, costs can be held down and all the rents are at a level affordable to moderate-income persons.
In other properties, developers create a skewed rent structure in which higher-income residents subsidize the units occupied by lower-income individuals.
One example of this highlighted at the seminar is Village House, a 149-unit, six-story apartment building in Montgomery County's new Montgomery Village development. The project was put together by the National Corporation for Housing Partnerships, this country's largest developer of government-assisted housing. It will serve persons 65 and older who do not need major medical attention.
Funding for the apartment building came from bonds sold last fall by Montgomery County's Housing Opportunities Commission with an interest rate of 11.2 percent. Last week that agency sold bonds for another rental project at 8.58 percent.
With no direct federal government assistance for Village House, the developer escaped having to pay the higher wage levels set by the Davis-Bacon Act. That resulted in construction cost savings averaging $140 a month for each apartment, according to NCHP calculations.
All of the units will have one bedroom and a kitchen. The building also will have common dining and food preparation areas.
Participation in the group meals program will be obligatory, both to provide income to help recover the costs of the common kitchen facilities and to encourage social interaction among the residents.
The units will have a base rent of $794 a month. With utility payments, and a service charge of $351 for meals and for weekly cleaning, the total cost of an unsubsidized Village House unit will average $1,352 a month, reported conference speaker and NCHP Executive Vice President Robert L. Tracy.
That amount will include $142 monthly as an internal subsidy for the 20 percent of the units occupied by lower-income persons. They will pay an estimated $325 for rent, plus the full meals charge.
In spite of the hefty fees for the unsubsidized apartments, the developer is confident all the units will be rented out. "The $1,300 sounds shocking, but not for children who want good care for their parents," said Tracy.
Before beginning construction of the project, NCHP commissioned a number of market studies. "There is nothing else like it" in the Washington area, Tracy explained. Two similar projects charge $1800 or more a month, he stated. Other, church-related apartment complexes require large initial cash payments, which Village House will not.
At the other end of the price range is a San Diego, Calif., project where monthly charges will be low enough so no internal subsidy will be needed to assist lower-income persons, said seminar speaker Steve Drogin of Drogin Development Co.
Constructed in two phases, The Orchard complex now includes 563 apartments, whose residents have an average annual income of only $7,200. When opened five years ago, the one-bedroom units in the project rented for $175 a month. They now cost about $200. Slightly larger apartments in the second phase, completed in October 1981, initially cost an average of $285.
Drogin explained that three key elements were needed to produce this lower-priced housing: "cheap" land, financing at 10 percent or less, and a reduction in the number of parking spaces required for the apartment complex. "You can make housing available to this group of lower-income elderly with this kind of land economics," he commented.
The developer leased the property for the project from the city of San Diego. This was much less expensive than purchasing the plot outright. The first group of apartments were financed with a 30-year loan at 9 1/2 percent, slightly below the rates then prevailing in 1977.
For the second part of the complex, Drogin persuaded several lenders to purchase bonds from San Diego's Redevelopment Agency at a 10 percent interest rate, then about 3 percent under the market.
Drogin's company plans to construct several similar properties elsewhere. The next project, in Mesa, Ariz., will have rents at about $295 a month.
It is still unclear what type of housing production program, if any, will result from this year's congressional session, said conference speaker Charles Edson of the D.C. law firm of Lane and Edson. "Don't look for a generous type of subsidy program as in past years," he said.
The House and the Senate are considering bills with differing approaches to aiding rental construction. Congress is likely to compromise on a program that will provide one-time, front-end assistance rather than ongoing payments as with Section 8, Edson stated.